iFi audio ZEN DAC

General Information

Be at one with your music with ZEN DAC

Highly specified, super-affordable and simple to use, iFi’s ZEN DAC elevates your digital audio experience to a higher plane

Southport, England – Hot on the heels of the ZEN Blue hi-res Bluetooth streamer, iFi expands the ZEN family of desktop-sized audio products with the ZEN DAC – a USB DAC/headphone amp offering a level of specification and performance that belies its eminently affordable £129 price tag.



Designed for home use – on a desk, perhaps, or in the living room – the ZEN DAC connects to PCs and Macs, or smart devices such as tablets or phones, via USB. Its hi-res digital-to-analogue conversation technology processes all forms of digital audio to a super-high standard, while the integrated analogue headphone amplifier delivers superb sound with all headphone types, from in-ear monitors to larger on- and over-ear designs.

Compared to simply plugging headphones directly into a computer or smart device, the ZEN DAC transforms the listening experience – sound is clearer, more detailed, more expansive and engaging, making the most of whichever headphones are connected.

As well as driving headphones, the ZEN DAC can be used as a USB DAC in a home audio system, with or without its volume control engaged. What’s more, whether you’re hooking up headphones, an external amp or active speakers, you have a choice of single-ended or balanced connection – a remarkable facility at the price.


Digital stage

The DAC section is based around a Burr-Brown DAC chip that iFi uses extensively, selected for its fluid, highly ‘musical’ sound quality and ‘True Native’ architecture. This, together with the XMOS chip used for input processing, enables iFi to deliver excellent sound quality across all manner of digital audio formats including hi-res PCM, ‘bit-perfect’ DSD and MQA *– the hi-res streaming codec, as used by Tidal’s ‘Masters’ tier. Given the diminutive asking price, the ZEN DAC’s digital audio credentials are highly impressive.

PCM and DXD audio data is supported up to 24-bit/384kHz, alongside DSD sampling rates from 2.8MHz to 12.4MHz (DSD256). Thanks to the Burr-Brown chip’s True Native design, PCM and DSD take separate pathways – this enables DSD to remain ‘bit-perfect’ in its native form, right through to analogue conversion. Many DACs that claim DSD compatibility accept DSD data but then convert it to PCM; for DSD purists, the ZEN DAC is a fantastic affordable solution.



Another circuit feature that separates this and other DACs made by iFi from competing designs is iFi’s in-house programming of the XMOS chip. While other manufacturers simply use the firmware that comes with the chip off-the-shelf, which is not typically optimised for audiophile-grade sound, iFi programs its own bespoke firmware to boost audio processing power.

iFi’s continuous software development allows features to be added or optimised via firmware updates, enabling the ZEN DAC to be tailored to the user’s playback priorities and ensuring it stays cutting-edge over time. Users can even download and install different versions of iFi firmware to experiment with different digital filters should they so desire.

Extensive clock-locking is used throughout the digital stage to eradicate jitter, maintaining the integrity of the digital signal until conversion.

Analogue stage

The ZEN DAC’s analogue stage is a balanced design – highly unusual in a DAC/headphone amp anywhere near this price point. It incorporates a range of high-quality circuit components, carefully selected for their performance in an audio context, including C0G capacitors from TDK, a precision low-noise power supply IC from Texas Instruments and a high-quality analogue volume pot.

The headphone amp stage has switchable gain, which iFi terms PowerMatch. This matches the level of drive to the load presented by the headphones, by adjusting input sensitivity and thereby signal strength. With high-sensitivity headphone types such as in-ear monitors, leave PowerMatch at its lower setting for ultra-low-noise performance. But if your headphones require more drive – most on/over-ear types, for example – press the PowerMatch button on the front panel to increase gain.

TrueBass is another user-selectable feature. An evolution of iFi’s established XBass circuit, TrueBass is a sophisticated form of ‘bass boost’ that subtly enhances low frequencies without muddying the midrange – particularly useful with earphones and open-back headphones that may lack deep bass. It operates entirely in the analogue domain rather than messing with the digital signal via DSP and may be switched in or out via another button on the front panel.


Well connected

The ZEN DAC sports Pentaconn 4.4mm balanced outputs, both front and back – this is a relatively new interface type, designed to enable balanced signal transfer between compact products that cannot accommodate traditional XLR connections. The front-mounted 4.4mm output sits alongside a standard, single-ended 6.3mm headphone socket – thus, the benefits of balanced headphone designs are fully utilised, whilst also accommodating every type of headphone, both balanced and single-ended.



The 4.4mm output to the rear enables connection to amps and active speakers equipped with a balanced input – either a Pentaconn 4.4mm input, or XLR inputs via a 4.4mm-to-XLR cable. Single-ended RCA outputs are also provided.

These line-level outputs – both balanced and single-ended – can be switched between ‘variable’ and ‘fixed’, enhancing the ZEN DAC’s versatility. The variable setting applies volume control to the audio signal, enabling the ZEN DAC to perform as a preamp feeding a power amp or active speakers. The fixed option bypasses the volume control, fixing the output at 4.2V (balanced) or 2.1V (single-ended) for connection to an external preamp or integrated amp.

The ZEN DAC’s asynchronous USB Type B input supports the ‘SuperSpeed’ USB 3.0 standard and is also compatible with USB 2.0.

In common with other ZEN Series products, the ZEN DAC sports a sturdy, smartly finished aluminium enclosure, neatly sized at 158x35x100mm (WxHxD). Even the rotary volume control is aluminium, giving a reassuringly solid feel – impressive at the product’s super-affordable price. Behind the volume control resides an LED that changes colour to indicate the sampling rate of the audio data received.

The iFi ZEN DAC is available from mid-October, at an RRP of £129. Further ZEN Series products are set to follow in the coming months.

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Latest reviews

iFi Zen DAC: affordable quality
Pros: excellent build quality
- a lot of good sound for a little money
- does MQA if that matters to you
- USB powered
Cons: no wall adapter included
- short USB cable
Prologue:

I have been in this hobby for more than ten years. I have owned a lot of different gears from entry level to TOTL (top of the line). Value for price was always a huge factor to me and iFi’s Zen Dac does not disappoint in this regard. This Dac offers a lot of good quality sound for only £129.

My main testing headphone with the Zen Dac was the LCD-X, and I have to say they were driven decently. The LCD-X is advertised as easy to drive (20 ohm, 103db/1mw), but like all big planar headphones they like a bit of juice and current. The Zen Dac made them sound loud enough and quite enjoyable.

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Package, build quality:

The build quality of the Zen Dac is nothing less than impressive. All parts are quality and sturdy aluminium, buttons have great tactile feedback and the volume knob feels great too. I also like the little colourful led lights. It is not over the top, but enough to put on a little one person show in your bedroom.

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It is hard to find better build quality even for 2-3 times of the asking price. The package is simple, but that is expected with a lower priced DAC that performs well. While the Zen Dac works from USB power by default, the absence of a wall plug somewhat limits the usage scenario. Also, in my opinion the included USB cable is too short for most buyers.

I do not fully understand the absence of the wall plug and the shortness of the USB cable as cost saving factors. The Zen Dac would still be an exceptional deal for £139 with all these accessories, as it is for £129 without them. Of course, this is obviously just some serious nit-picking on my behalf. You do get an RCA cable.

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Sound:

Having a small Dac like this, aimed for computers, is pretty much the next step from USB stick DACs. Paying the same amount of money for a memory stick sized Dac gives you more convenience but lesser sound quality and power. It is the same with Bluetooth headphones: £200 buys you wireless convenience on the plane or train, but won’t sound near as good as a proper £200 opened back headphone from a decent home system.

That said the Zen Dac is still very small, easily transportable and USB powered! It is a Dac that you can just shove in your briefcase when you go on your holiday or keep it next to your laptop at work. The sound quality is levels above any laptop, MacBook or USB stick DAC. The Zen DAC is the audio enthusiast’s surviving device when they are derived from their home system of audio nirvana. This level of transportable sound quality has never been more affordable.

Let me be a bit more specific:

Bass


The Zen Dac has surprisingly good bass extension. Similarly priced Dacs often weak out under 100Hz, but the Zen Dac keeps going. The bass is nicely balanced and relatively flat in its price range with an option to give it a tasteful boost (‘truebass’ button).
It is also surprisingly clear sounding for the price. The audio thermometer shows a little warmth from what is considered neutral, but this is what most consumers like these days. I think at £129, iFi is trying to reach a wider audience which is never a bad idea.
Mid bass is plenty, but also not blown up which to me is often a shortcoming of other similarly priced equipment.
The transmission to mids is smooth without bumps.

Mids:

Mids are also warmish, and the balance of the overall sound seamlessly continues here. It is a smooth and slightly thicker sound. Great level of vocal and instrument realism for the price.

Treble:

Smooth treble, but as equally detailed as the bass and the mids are. It is never bright or harsh, but very easy and comfortable. My kind of treble I should say.

Technicalities:

The Zen Dac is as technical as you can expect at this price. It is classes above any laptop or phone audio, levels above USB stick Dacs. In fact, it quite easily beats some other Dacs for twice the price, especially if those Dacs are a few years old. What I found the most impressive is the bass and treble extension, overall balance and coherence of the sound.

The Zen Dac delivers a decent amount of space and details for the price, but I think these are also the main areas where higher-quality Dacs (£500+) overshadow the Zen Dac without breaking much sweat. Also, the higher you climb the imaginary audio ladder the sound also becomes more and more realistic.

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Additional thoughts:

My daily driver these days is the RME-ADI2 DAC (RRP £840, another relative ‘bargain’ for the price). Comparing these two devices of course would be unfair.
Whether something like the RME is worth six times more than the Zen Dac is a personal question that only you can answer to yourself.

Where higher quality DACs like the RME really crush the Zen Dac is clarity, details, spaciousness and lifelikeness. This little Zen Dac is impressively coherent though, with great balance, texture and tuning. What the Zen Dac puts on the table for £129 is nothing less than exceptional.

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Having owned or reviewed most of iFi’s DAC line, I would like to reflect on these in a nutshell.
iFi Nano BL (£199). In my opinion the Nano BL and the Zen DAC sound very similar (mind that I am talking from memory here), yet the Nano cost £70 more. In my opinion it is only worth buying the Nano over the Zen if you need a battery powered DAC.
The Micro BL (£599) is a significant step up from both. More details, more space, more power, more everything but with the same smooth and slightly warm style.
The ‘Pro’ line is another big leap (Pro IDSD £2749). Levels above the Micro BL, but also 4.5 times more expensive.

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Conclusion:

iFi’s entry level Dac has been quite a hit, and after testing it myself I have to say it is well deserved. If you care about your music just a little more than most people do, you simply owe it to yourself to buy an iFi Zen as your first DAC. The experience you get is a dimension above any phone or computer audio.
The Zen Dac is also easily transportable, USB powered, an ideal companion on holidays when you are away from your higher-end gear. I think it is also a great option for many audio enthusiasts as a secondary headphone system at your workplace or bedside cabinet.
For £129 in 2020 you will have hard time finding anything better sounding than the Zen DAC. Well done iFi.
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Pros: balanced output at a very reasonable price, DAC/Pre-amp functionality
Cons: Needs external power supply to perform well, limited output power


disclaimer: The Zen is a loaner provided by iFi Audio for review and must be returned when the review is complete. I have no financial interest in iFi or its parent AMR. I have previously reviewed the Zen Blue and this is the other model in the Zen line and is a desktop DAC/Amp. A big thanks of iFi-Audio. If you are interested in the Zen series or other iFi products, check their website.

Unboxing / Packaging:
The Zen ships in a lift top style box with the main unit housed in an egg-crate surround with the USB cable and RCA cables in a small box to the right of the unit. An instruction card and warranty card round out the package. While the Zen does have a barrel jack for an external power supply, none is provided so if you wish to power it off something other than USB (which I recommend) you will need to purchase the power supply separately. I think knowing this is a stand alone unit, I would have been inclined to skip the RCA cables and include the power supply if only providing one or the other. I guess those using the Zen to feed powered monitors will disagree here. The cable I most wish was included or at least offered via iFi’s website as an add on is the 4.4 balanced to dual XLR adapters for use with balanced gear. As of this writing, the iFi website does not list any such option. For those interested, I purchased a 4.4 balanced to dual XLR for testing from LQi Cables (I have no affiliation).


iFi-Zen-box-front.JPGiFi-Zen-box-rear.JPGiFi-Zen-box-side.JPGiFi-Zen-box-inner.JPG


Build:
The Zen is well made with an aluminum shell and face-plates. Four screws run the entire depth of the unit and connect the front and rear face-plates making disassembly straight forward if ever required. The board is slotted into the case so has no play in any direction when the screws are tightened down. The front face has two buttons on the left, a large central volume knob with the LED indicator behind it, and two outputs to the right. The outputs are a 6.3mm TRS single-ended output and a 4.4mm TRRS jack for balanced output. The rear face, from left to right, starts with a 4.4mm TRRS balanced line-out connector followed by a fixed/Variable switch, then the RCA connectors, a USB 3.0 input, and a barrel connector for external power supply. It should be noted that the rear 4.4mm TRRS is intended for use as a pre-out and not as a headphone jack. It can be used as a headphone output with the switch in variable position (although with a proper jack on front there is little reason to) but when switched to fixed line-level output it is entirely too loud and will damage your hearing if not your gear.

iFi-Zen-front2.JPGiFi-Zen-rear1.JPG


Internals:
Removing the 4 screws from the rear of the unit will allow the board to be removed via the front without having to remove the volume knob or disconnect the LED as is required to remove the board to the rear of the unit. Once removed the board is a bit empty looking until you flip it as most of the chips are mounted to the underside of the board. USB input is handled by the large Xmos chip at the rear edge of the board (blue/green dot in the photo). This appears to be a 2nd generation XMOS208 series chip and supports inputs up to 384kHz for PCM, DSD256, DXD 384, and MQA. Input is then handed off to the Burr Brown DSD1793 DAC chip immediately above it. It may seem odd to some that I list the bit rates on the USB rather than on the DAC chip but I do so as the USB is the limiting factor here. Still looking at the bottom of the board, the upper right area is the amplifier so after passing the 1793, output goes to that area for further amplification. Note the twin rows of chips in the amp for balanced outputs. Output power is listed as 280mW @ 32Ω or 36mW @ 300Ω for the 6.3mm single ended output and 380mW @ 50Ω or 70mW @ 600Ω via the 4.4mm balanced output.


iFi-Zen-internals-bottom1.JPGiFi-Zen-internals-top1.JPG



Controls/Features:
The biggest selling point of the Zen is probably the balanced output at the modest price point, but iFi did pack in a few other features as well. On the front panel, we have power-match and true-bass buttons and on the rear we have fixed/variable output switching. The Front also has an LED partially hiding behind the volume knob that indicates state and file format in use.

The Power-match is a gain switch with settings for low impedance/ high sensitivity in ears, and for higher impedance or Lower sensitivity over-ear models. Most other vendors refer to this same option as a gain switch and it is not uncommon for Amplifiers to support 2 or more levels of gain to allow for better matching of output to headphone type. I will say that with sensitive headphones I found it best to leave this in the lower position as some hiss sneaks in when put into the higher gain mode.

True-bass is one of the more useful bass boost circuits I have heard as it doesn’t try and over-do the boost like so many do and it focuses a bit lower on the spectrum with most all of the effect coming below 200Hz and the biggest bump closer to 100Hz. It lifts the sub-bass about +2dB and will indeed give a bass-light headphone a bit more bass presence without a huge sacrifice in quality in the process. Far too many bass boost circuits turn the low end into a big boomy mess so it is nice to see a design that attempts to boost a bit without doing so. Kudos to iFi for that.

The variable /fixed output switch allows setting the output to fixed line level for use with an external amplifier or to volume adjustable output for use with powered monitors lacking their own volume control mechanism. For this I found it worked quite well when pairing with a couple of pairs of near-field monitors as would be typical for a work desk.

The LED indicator uses iFi’s standard color scheme with green representing PCM from 44-96kHz, yellow for PCM above 96kHz, cyan for DSD 64/128, blue for DSD 256, and magenta for MQA.

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Sound
The Zen does a fairly good job of being transparent and not coloring the sound but the first thing that one will notice is that the Zen is slightly laid-back and smooth rather than being super detailed and analytical. I don’t see this as a fault in an entry level product, but one needs to know that smoothing is present. The next thing one will notice is noise which is unfortunate. The Zen is extremely dependent on clean USB power, that said, I have yet to find a PC that does an adequate job of supplying clean power. I quickly switched to using an external regulated power supply and found good improvement as the noise was gone and the background became black instead of the previous shade of light gray. Bass has good weight without the boost circuit so unless you are a basshead, you wont need the little button. Vocals are well voiced and mids in general share that same slightly forward presentation. Top end has good air and some sparkle as well. All in all, I enjoyed the presentation with the exception of being slightly too smoothed over for me.

I read about a new firmware that replaced the Linear Phase filter with the GTO filter from the Pro iDSD so decided to load it and see if I could hear a difference. Honestly, I wasn’t expecting much as I have spent countless hours trying to be able to pick out changes made by some of the dac filters and still can’t reliably do so. Well, I was surprised here and suggest if you have or get a Zen – Load this firmware. It definitely cleans up the sound and that smoothness that I previously mentioned was replaced with a much more articulate sound that was both thicker and cleaner if that is even possible. The Zen retains some fluidity with this new firmware but doesn’t sound like someone tried to round off all the sharp edges anymore. Much improved.

The only other thing to mention here is output power which is lacking the grunt to power heavy duty cans like my He6se and even the 600Ω Beyers place enough demand on the Zen that it has less headroom than optimal. I found it best used with 150Ω or lower cans with the HD650 being about the limit of what it can reasonably be expected to push well.

Comparisons
AudioEngine D1 – The D1 represents a previous generation of device with 96kHz limit when used with USB input and a 192kHz limit with Optical input. Still for most this will not be a limit as the vast majority of users will be most 44.1, 48, or 96kHz files anyway. Power is roughly the same between these two units as well. The Zen adds balanced output, and the gain/bass features, but loses optical input. Honestly, if I already had the D1, I’d probably skip getting the Zen unless I just had to have the balanced output. If I were buying today, the Zen is the more versatile option of the two.

Topping DX3 Pro – The DX3 Pro is quite a bit more pricey ($220 vs $129 retail) than the Zen, so we expect more from it, but with topping representing perhaps the best Chi-fi budget option right now, it seems remiss not to do the comparison. The DX3 Pro lacks the balanced output of the Zen but gains dual 4493 DACs that give it an advantage of support 32/768 PCM and DSD512 although it does not have MQA support. Both have dual gain options for different headphones, but the DX3 has considerably higher output power at 700mW@32Ω and 125mW@300Ω. The drawback to the DX3 pro is the 3.5mm jack instead of the larger 6.3 which would make it more compatible with typical full-sized cans. The DX3 also sports bluetooth, optical. and coaxial inputs for those who need them. What this shows is how much $100 extra can buy in today’s market as the DX3 packs a ton of features for a modest price. Still the Zen offers balanced output, and MQA support which the DX3 can’t match.

Thoughts / Conclusion:
Well, I have to admit, the Zen was on its way to being the 1st iFi product that I couldn’t honestly recommend. It has limited output power, limited input options, has a fair amount of noise and even a bit of hiss on high gain, and lacked a bit of detail to the signature that I would have preferred. Based on that, I was going to have to say pass on this one until they do a bit more work, but then two things happened. First they did a bit more work and the new firmware with the GTO replacement for the linear filter is a big improvement. So much for my too smoothed over argument. Then I plugged in a linear power supply and my other major argument about noise went away too. I was left with a good little dac / pre-amp once those two issues are cured. Sure, I’d love for iFi to have included the power supply in the box, and they likely could have if they’d charged me $179 instead of $129 too. One shouldn’t expect miracles from an entry level product and within that framework I can say the Zen does a good job of hitting the marks they were aiming for (with the caveat of loading the new firmware and getting a power supply for it). At this point, the Zen is a guarded recommendation in that it can perform well, but you’ll need to spend on a power supply for it to realize its full potential.
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G
Genohead
I'm curious how this dac can support 32bit 384kHz when Burr-Brown chip is limited to 24 bit 192 kHz?
When I look at the spec sheet of ifi Zen dac, I see that the PCM over USB specs are not higher than what the specs of the dac chip itself states.
So does that mean that no matter what ifi says, there is no way to support higher bit rates?
The xmos USB receiver is capable until 32/768, as it is the same as in topping unit that you have mentioned, so the limitations are not there
Wiljen
Wiljen
me too, the DSD1793 lists as 24/192 sample rate and 2.88 for DSD. Clock rates go to 768 and 11.92 respectively, but that isn't the same as input frequency rate. Either some fancy footwork or some games being played.
G
Genohead
Ha, I have missed the information for DSD sampling rate. So the chip is limited here to DSD128, but Zen Dac can play 256? That's interesting!
Pros: Price
Feature Set
Cons: Limited power
Hi Guys,

Today we are having a look at the iFi Audio ZenDAC, their new entry level DAC/Amp combo unit.


It really is amazing what you can purchase at the entry level nowadays, even compared to 5 years ago. This unit would have been unthinkable back then. The ZenDAC provides pretty much everything a beginner could ever need or want, at an MSRP of $129.99USD. Thats right. You heard me. $129.99USD. Thats crazy. 5 years ago this would have cost $500USD I would guess. It really is a testament to how far we have come as a hobby in such a short time span.

The ZenDAC provides less options than the usual iFi Audio fare, but for the asking price, that is expected. It still has everything you need as a beginner. It does have an update to iFi XBASS to what they now call TRUBASS. This provides a 6(ish) decibel boost to the low end, which is welcome on some headphones, and low and high gain settings (what iFi calls “Power Match.”) What I found really quite interesting was that the ZenDAC is a balanced piece of gear. This is unusual at this price point. Now, balanced doesn’t really matter to me, I would prefer a good single ended design over a poor balanced design, but it is something to take note of. Thankfully, iFi has gone with the 4.4mm Pentaconn sockets for both balanced headphone output and line out. This is a much better connector choice than 2.5mm jacks, which are not as durable.


Now, the ZenDAC is not the most powerful of amplifiers. The specs say 280mw at 32ohms single ended, and 380mw at 50ohms from the balanced output. With the high gain option, this will be enough for most headphones, especially as this piece of gear will likely be used by beginners, and entry level headphones tend to be easier to drive. Its not powerful enough to drive something like the HE6, but to be honest, I really don’t think that matters, its not what the ZenDAC was designed for. This is a piece of gear that will work great with something like the Drop/Sennheiser HD6XX, or similar. I mean, think of it like this. You purchase a pair of HD6XX for $200USD (or less if you buy them used) and the ZenDAC for $129.99USD, combine it with your laptop, and you are set. That is a system that would outdo a lot of more expensive set ups, especially from years past.

The ZenDAC can also be used as a system DAC in combination with an external amplifier. It has RCA outputs, as well as a 4.4mm Pentaconn balanced output. This would need a special cable to be made (4.4mm to dual 3pin XLR) for use with a balanced external amplifier, but the option is there, and that is pretty neat. You can also choose either variable output, for use with a power amplifier, or fixed, for use with a preamp or integrated amplifier.

As you can see, the ZenDAC may not have all the typical iFi features, but it has everything you need, and even some stuff you don’t. Two thumbs up.


Now, the most important question. How does it sound? Perfectly acceptable. Is it a giant killer? Of course not. But the tonal balance seems fairly neutral, and detail is certainly acceptable. You have to keep in mind, this is $129.99USD! Its not meant to be a giant killer, its meant to get you started as a first option beyond the built in output to your laptop, or as a secondary set up beside your bed. That sort of thing, and honestly? I think it excels at those jobs.


The obvious thing to compare the ZenDAC to was my iFi Audio Micro iDSD Black Label, their top of the line transportable option. As you might expect, the iDSD is more capable, in every aspect. From features, to power, to sound quality, it is better. However, the iDSD retails for $600USD. That is almost 6 times more than the ZenDAC. It is more detailed, has better timbre and tonality, but the ZenDAC isn’t as far off as you might think.

If someone had just purchased their first pair of headphones that are something beyond a gaming headset, the HD58X or HD6XX, something like that, and asked me the fabled question of “do I need an amp or DAC?” I’d say, well, listen to your headphones from your computers built in output for a while, but after that, if the itch is there, give the iFi ZenDAC a try.


The ZenDAC is not the most sonically competent piece of gear ever made, it’s not the most powerful, it’s not the most detailed, but its not designed to be. It is a simple, beginner level, $129.99USD MSRP, piece of gear, and I think it lives up to that mark very well. I would totally recommend the ZenDAC to a beginner, or someone needing an affordable back up piece of source equipment. Thank you iFi for letting me give the ZenDAC a try 🙂
H
HesamSb
Thank you for review
I have plan to buy it
You must try ifi ipower ac adapter to see more power and less noise on zen dac !
Good luck.

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